DOJ subpoenas AMD, Nvidia on graphics processing

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has subpoenaed Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Nvidia as part of an antitrust investigation into the market for graphics processors and graphics cards.

AMD recently entered the graphics chip business with its acquisition of ATI Technologies, which was finalized last month. The DOJ has not made any allegations against AMD or ATI, and AMD intends to cooperate with the investigation, it said Thursday.

Competing chip vendor Nvidia said on Friday that it had also received a subpoena, relating to an "investigation into potential antitrust violations related to graphics processing units and cards." Nvidia plans to cooperate with the order, which came from the San Francisco office of the DOJ's Antitrust Division.

While the DOJ hasn't said specifically what it is investigating, one industry analyst speculated that the case could be about price fixing. The DOJ has already charged a number of chip companies in the DRAM (Dynamic RAM) memory chip market for price fixing, and is investigating several in the SRAM (Static RAM) chip market.

"If the DOJ wanted to, it could just go down every line in the semiconductor industry and find the same issue," said Gartner analyst Richard Gordon. That's because there are a relatively few number of suppliers in the chip industry and an open flow of communication between competitors and customers, who may not define price fixing the same way the DOJ does, he said.

The investigations are unlikely to benefit end users, according to Gordon. Historically, prices in the chip industry have gone up and down based on supply and demand and he doubts that such investigations will result in lower pricing.

A spokeswoman for AMD in Europe, Hollis Krym, said she did not know if the investigation has a broad scope and includes other graphics chip companies or if it is in the context of the ATI acquisition. U.S. antitrust authorities have already approved AMD's merger with ATI.

In the DRAM market, the DOJ has charged Samsung Electronics Co., Hynix Semiconductor America, Elpida Memory and Infineon Technologies with price fixing and sentenced the companies to pay multi-million dollar fines.

Sony, Cypress Semiconductor and the U.S. arms of Mitsubishi Electric, Samsung Electronics Co. and Toshiba have all been asked to turn over information to the DOJ for an investigation into SRAM price fixing.

(Ben Ames in Boston contributed to this story.)

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